No evidence that voluntary actions by the food and beverage industry can safeguard public health

Recent research by PRICELESS SA at the University of Witwatersrand School of Public Health found that there is no evidence that voluntary actions by the food and beverage industry can safeguard public health.  

The increasing availability of unhealthy, ultra-processed foods is linked to rising rates of obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as diabetes and hypertension, in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs)1. Well-designed, evidence-based fiscal and regulatory policies can improve food environments (the contexts in which people engage with food) by limiting the availability, afford- ability and accessibility of unhealthy foods to reduce consumption and improve public health2. However, the introduction of these policies has been heavily opposed by the food and beverage industry, which favours the use of voluntary actions (VAs) instead of binding government regulations . The use of VAs by the food industry has been endorsed by international bodies, despite similar action taken by the alcohol and tobacco industries being ineffective. Given that VAs often replace evidence-based policies, it is crucial that their effectiveness is evaluated and understood.

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Parents may make healthier food purchases when ultra-processed foods include warning labels

Researchers from the University of Limpopo, the University of Western Cape, and the University of North Carolina investigated how warning labels impacted parents’ food purchasing decisions and perceptions of unhealthy food. When shown images of foods with warning labels, parents indicated that they would buy less foods high in nutrients of concern that were labeled as “high in sugar, sodium, saturated fat” and switch to non-labeled, healthier, foods.

South Africa faces high levels of obesity and diet-related noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), such as diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease. Over two-thirds of women and approximately one-third of men in South Africa are overweight or obese. A diet high in sugar, sodium or saturated fat can increase the risk of developing NCDs. Front-of-package warning labels (FOPWL) help consumers quickly, easily, and correctly identify foods high in nutrients of concern. For this reason, FOPWLs deter consumption and purchase of these unhealthy products. The researchers conducted focus groups with 44 parents of children under age 16 who lived in the Limpopo Province, a predominantly rural area. Focus group participants varied by age, income, literacy level, and town or rural residency. Parents were shown mock-up images of products (chips, sugar sweetened beverages, etc.) with a warning label on the products. The researchers asked about how well the warning label was understood and whether seeing it impacted food choices for their children.

Key Findings

  • Parents expressed that their children’s health was their top priority, and warning labels made them think about future health impacts if their children continued eating ultra-processed foods high in sodium, sugar, and saturated fat.
  • Poor nutrition knowledge and affordability surfaced as one of the leading influencers of parental food selection. This study illustrated parents’ misconception about ultra-processed/unhealthy foods, where for the first time, they realized that these products were high in sugar.

Key Messages

  • The study underscores the important role that warning labels may play in helping parents make healthy purchasing decisions for their children.
  • Warning labels on foods high in sugar, sodium and saturated fats – key drivers for diet-related diseases – equip parents to seek out healthier food options and invest in the long-term health of their children.
  • South African policymakers should implement mandatory warning labels on unhealthy food products, providing parents easy to understand nutrient information that can help to discourage purchase and consumption of unhealthy, ultra-processed foods.

Bopape M, Taillie LS, Swart R (2022). Perceived effect of warning label on parental food purchasing and drivers of food selection among South African parents – an exploratory study. Frontiers in Nutrition, 10.3389/fpubh.2022.939937

Funding for this study was provided by Bloomberg Philanthropies.